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Adelaide Festival: Xenos

Adelaide Festival

The much-fêted Akram Khan’s final full-length dance performance is a consummate work of anguish and exquisite beauty, writes Katherine Arguile.

London-born dancer and choreographer Khan announced that XENOS would be his last full-length dance performance. Now 43, he states that performing for more than an hour takes too great a physical toll on his body.

One suspects as the lights come up at the end of his extraordinarily wrought and skilful performance that it is one of such emotional, as well as physical intensity, that it leaves him as shattered and breathless as it leaves us.

XENOS was commissioned for 14-18 Now, a British arts program marking the centenary of World War I. A Greek word meaning “stranger” or “foreigner”, XENOS reflects on identity, alienation, death and rebirth through the shell-shocked dream of a sepoy trapped in the trenches of No Man’s Land, one of 1.5 million Indian soldiers sent far from home to fight Britain’s war.

Those that were not buried where they fell in Europe, Africa and the Middle East returned home maimed and traumatised to find themselves outsiders in the face of a rising Indian nationalism that rejected British colonial rule. The sepoy became Xenoi.

Mirella Weingarten’s innovative raked set transforms from a nostalgic, cosy scene into a stark, soil-pocked trench. As the audience files in, a tabla player and singer exchange friendly musical banter under fairy-lights, surrounded by the trappings of the sepoy’s life at home: rugs, cushions, books and a swing, carefree symbols heavy with the portent of the destruction to come.

Khan emerges in traditional shalwar kameez, ghungroo bells on his ankles, his immaculate Kathak dance a marker of belonging, but the occasional boom of bombs that make him clasp at his head hint that all is not as it seems. The stripping of identity begins with Khan removing his ghungroo, wrapping them around his body like a bullet belt before stretching them from his ankles with his hands, echoing the chains of Prometheus, whose gift to humanity Khan questions: “…was it the blessing or curse of mankind?”.

Vincenzo Lamagna’s immersive soundscape incorporates a collaborative score with Indian melodies, soldier songs and the pathos of Mozart’s Requiem. Musicians sporadically appear in a framed window of light, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Merged with layers of spoken text, industrial sounds and the rumbling thunder of shelling, it reflects the overwhelming assault on the sepoy’s senses. “This is not war,” says the sepoy. “This is the ending of the world.”

XENOS, Khan says, is a reflection on how he feels about the current dehumanising state of the world. It is, he has said, also a reflection of his personal journey as an artist.

Indeed, XENOS is a profound and devastating warning against the destruction of our humanity, as well as a meditation on ageing and loss. It has been a great privilege to witness this deeply moving performance.


XENOS is being presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre until March 18.

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